The right—and quick—response can salvage your digital reputation.
By Rebecca Kennedy
Imagine this: You’re surfing the web some morning, and a flurry of negative posts about your business or product line pops up. The criticism could come from a consumer website, a blog, a social-media discussion or from any one of many other web sources.
It could happen to you.
Your response to online criticism can influence public opinion toward you, positively or negatively. It’s good business to be prepared.
So if you stumble on negative online comments, keep these tips in mind as you prepare your response:
Listen and understand. If possible, contact the individual making the critical post before you post your response. Ask for details and, if the individual needs assistance or guidance, offer to provide it.
Be authoritative. Put yourself in a position of responsibility by placing your name and title in your post.
Get your position upfront. State your views in the first or second line of the response. This helps ensure that casual readers at least know where you stand. Readers engaged in the issue can read through the post, as you expound on the details.
Remain positive and upbeat. When you respond online, many people are watching, including current and prospective customers. Your online demeanor should convey the same sense of courtesy, sincerity and openness that you’d display to your very best customer.
Say thanks. It’s OK to offer online gratitude for sincere criticism. And because a thank-you is an expression of your interest and concern, it’s good business as well.
Admit mistakes. If you goofed up, better to say so upfront and publicly. Most customers will understand. Better yet, offer a convenient way to fix the problem. Or at least share your plans for fixing the problem. Your customers will appreciate this.
Educate. If the online criticism is unfounded, or due to misunderstanding, take the opportunity to compose an educational response: a step-by-step guide to the workings of a product or links to useful information, for instance. Links to solid FAQs on your website are especially appropriate; they provide solid information and assure customers that you value support.
Illustrate. If the issue is technically or emotionally complex, illustrate your position. You might, for example, post a diagram, relate an anecdote, offer a testimonial or provide links to specifications.
Offer to communicate. One of the all-important statements you can make in an online response to criticism is an offer to answer additional questions or provide more information. A convenient email address and telephone number should accompany your posts.
Ask questions. As part of your response, you might pose one or two strategic questions. You might, for instance, ask customers to evaluate your product attributes or training. Or explain how they solved the thorny problem your negative poster related. Probing questions, of course, can open you up for more criticism—but they can also open up an incredibly productive and profitable dialogue.
Reassure. As you close your response, reiterate your public commitment to excellence. And invite customers and prospective customers to contact you with their needs in the future.
Disagree politely and concisely. Occasionally, you might encounter harsh or rude criticism. Never attack, and don’t respond with insults and low blows; you’ll be perceived as lowering yourself to the poster’s standards. Instead, offer your response clearly and succinctly, without rancor. You might see other readers springing to your defense.
Act fast. The online world runs at a frantic pace. Information that appears online can be quickly perceived as fact if it’s not countered promptly. If you see a negative post, respond as quickly as possible—within 24 hours on the outside.
Don’t dodge the issue. Attempting to pressure a website host or blog owner to delete a negative post can easily backfire on you. Ditto for anonymous posts that “go negative” on the original poster.
Online communication is based on openness. Your willingness to engage in online dialogue is a powerful testament to high-quality support and service. By inviting questions, comments and dialogue, you enter the world of your customers—and position yourself as honest, approachable and interested. That’s an enviable position, one that can easily lead to new business opportunities.